Pastors have a bad reputation for telling tall tales.
It’s not because pastors intend to deceive. Rather, we are, by nature, storytellers. We are also constantly under pressure to have inspiring material for sermon illustrations. When we hear a good story that illustrates a point, we’ll use it. Unfortunately some of these stores turn out to be fables rather than fact.
Case in point – the story of the Oak Trees of New College Oxford. Stewart Brand popularized this tale of New College intentionally planting and caring for trees for 500 years so that they would have replacements for the giant beams in their hall (see video). The best part of the story is they forester saying “we was wondering when you’d be asking” and revealing that the foresters had known all along that certain oaks were only for the beams.
It’s a story that has been re-told repeatedly in business contexts and design contexts about the value of long term thinking: “nice story. That’s the way to run a culture”
However, the story turns out to be only partially true. Yes, New College manages a large land grant (like many colleges and universities do). However, they did not intentionally curate oaks for 500 years. According to the New College Archivist:
It is not the case that these oaks were kept for the express purpose of replacing the Hall ceiling. It is standard woodland management to grow stands of mixed broadleaf trees e.g., oaks, interplanted with hazel and ash. The hazel and ash are coppiced approximately every 20-25 years to yield poles. The oaks, however, are left to grow on and eventally, after 150 years or more, they yield large pieces for major construction work such as beams, knees etc.
(Note: this was on the New College website back in 2002, but it has since been taken down – however you can still access this quote via the internet archive page)
Now note this – the facts still illustrate a great point about planning for the future and stewarding resources. But when we illustrate the principles with an unverifiable story, we lose trust of the audience.
Communicators of all stripes, take note.
We live in an era in which information is shared quickly and a determined person can sniff out the truth. Check your facts before you pass them off as truth. People are fine with you telling parables as long as you let them know up front it is a parable. But if you pass of a parable as history, you endanger your trustworthiness.
If a story sounds too good to be true – then check your source. Can the story be independently verified?
Here’s another case in point that I’m currently researching: Svea Flood
I came across this story in a book by a prominent preacher. Svea Flood was a missionary in the Congo – she made only one convert and then died on the field. But many years later, her daughter, Aggie Hurst, returned to find that the one convert had spread the story and grown the church to thousands. A few years later, Aggie Hurst was invited to visit her mother’s grave, and was greeted by tens of thousands who revered her mother as a national hero. There’s more to the story, as it is told, but you get the gist.
Here’s what nags me. I can’t find independent verification. The story is quoted and re-told all over the internet – and everyone uses almost the same language from the book that I read. Interestingly, the book I read cites Aggie Hurst’s autobiography, One Witness, published in 1986 by Chosen Books. However, as near as I can tell, that book is the only source of this story.
Now I’m not accusing anyone of spreading misinformation in the book. I’m just looking for independent verification a great story.
Because every good story leads to a dozen other good stories. Truth leaves tracks all over the place. I want to hear the story from the perspective of people in the Congo. I want to hear from Aggie’s friends who knew her when she found her mother’s grave. I want to hear about her husband’s accomplishments as a president of a “Seattle area bible college” Aggie’s story, as told, is pretty amazing. And therefore, there are dozens of other amazing stories wrapped up in it. I want to find those stories and tell of the ongoing impact.
Truth deserves to be told.
And if the story turns out to be untrue – then we need to fess up. Because we are people of truth.
Wanna help? Let me know in the comments. I’ll post there some of the places I’ve contacted to research this story.